Judith’s Schenck’s account of the fight at the Gala in Northampton, the summer of ’77, was previously published in Common Lives/Lesbian Lives in a slightly different version. The paragraph CL/LL cut, for space reasons, has been re-instated here and flagged for the reader’s attention.
The Gala Fight: 1977 by Judith Schenck
I claim this as a way
of letting go
I give you the memory
I don’t need to carry it
We had all been enjoying the steaminess of the summer night, using the weather as an excuse to strip to tank tops and show off our muscles. As I leaned against the jukebox nursing my first beer of the evening, I imagined I looked interesting — droll, perhaps, witty, maybe – but interesting, definitely. This was how I viewed myself.
The few lights gave the bar the sleazy, smoky, familiar atmosphere we all knew. It was a world we had made our own. At some tables, couples leaned close in earnest conversation, while next to them eight women crowded into a booth designed for half that number. The music was loud, and we knew all of the records by heart: 116, Marvin Gaye, Got to Give It Up; 108, Thelma Houston, Don’t Leave Me This Way; 115, Bee Gees, Jive Talkin’; Afternoon Delight; This Will Be; Soul Train; Rubberband Man; Love Hangover. Nobody needed the cure. We knew what it was: just dance.
In a slow-motioned, stop-action blur, I saw them come in through the door. I moved in front of them, standing directly in the path of the huge, blonde man with the twisted lip. If you’re going to call a place yours, you’ve got to be as willing as the next woman to stand up for it.
In the act of standing, however, I wasn’t really aware of the assumptions I was making. They had to do with how safe a white woman is in this culture, especially in New England, and about shared class values with white men. I was less surprised to learn that being a lesbian changes all of that than I was to discover that those really were my assumptions.
I told the three young men that they weren’t welcome. It was a private party. They should talk to Jeanie, the owner. I felt I had been firm, but reasonable. I had done exactly what Jeanie had always told us to do if men came into the back of the little pink bar. I had been a good girl. I was following the rules. But the big one in front shoved me, and I moved back to my spot in front of him, I heard someone yell that he couldn’t do that.
I remember seeing his hand coming toward me and I can hear again the blip-blip of thoughts flying through my mind. His hand became a mitt, a paw, an animal’s weapon, and encircled my left breast. He squeezed hard and then twisted it. In front of all of those nameless shadows of women there, he claimed a man’s power over a woman, the power to do what he would, power over, power to hurt, power to force.
I pushed him away and decided that I would step in and give him pain in the only place he could feel anything. I wanted to take the one place a man is soft and show him how it felt to be softness and vulnerability raped, ruptured, and destroyed.
But the man was better trained in tactics of violence and struck me while I was still (in the best lesbianfeminist tradition) processing my feelings. He struck with a force that literally rattled my teeth, and before I realized what had happened, he hit me in my jaw a second time.
The women had crowded up behind and caught me as I went down. When I opened my eyes, I saw another woman lying on the floor next to me with blood coming out of her mouth.
As the women I held me, I felt briefly safe. He stood over me, grinning, holding his fist at the ready. He taunted me, and I was filled with a fury that could reshape the world, a rage to destroy and kill. When I tried to get up, I found the women were holding me tightly, preventing me from responding. They put me in a booth and held me there while other women acted out their interpretations of my rage.
The worst bruises I carried away were the deep purple marks on my arms where I had been held and protected. Every day for three weeks, I looked at those marks and knew that he had no such marks to remind him. I had needed so much to release my anger at him, to somehow redeem myself in front of the women there. I was afraid that because I had not struck back immediately they might think I wasn’t a good enough dyke, that I hadn’t done it right.
My sense of shame was so deep that I was convinced that I smelled of him. I went to the local emergency room to have my jaw checked to insure it wasn’t broken, but when the nurse found out where the attack had taken place, she told me I got what I deserved and walked away. The doctor refused to x-ray my jaw, even though I had been hit directly on the hinge, when he discovered I had been in a fight with a man in a known lesbian bar.
When I learned the name of the blonde man who had hit me, I went to a local women lawyer – at that time the only female lawyer in town. She told me I didn’t have a chance with any legal action, because “in Northampton it wouldn’t even be considered against the law for a Polish boy to hit a lesbian.”
the following paragraph has been restored
I went to a community meeting on violence against women, surrounded by my friends who were helping me pick up the pieces of my soul. Standing near the doorway, I was stunned to hear woman after woman talk about what happened, criticizing “the woman” who had started it all. That woman, me, had done it all wrong. They detailed my failures in the attack. My failures. My friends urged me to speak up, to correct people, but I couldn’t do it. I left quickly. I could not find safety from that blonde man among my sisters. I smelled of him.
All of my life, I waited for the violence of the white man to fall on me. In Mississippi, I learned that safety for anyone is only temporary, and night after night as a child I lay in bed covered with the cold, immobilizing sweat of fear, waiting for the white man to come. I moved further and further north, but discovered that he is everywhere.
I internalized my anger, and one day realized with a shock that I had stopped washing my left breast, had stopped touching it altogether. To my eye, it seemed to physically shrink. He had touched it. It didn’t belong to me anymore.
I was afraid. Every time I saw a group of men, I broke into that cold sweat of fear again, and I waited for the harassment that eventually came. They smelled my fear and surrounded me with threats wherever I went. I held onto images of strength, but found no way to move them from the outside to the inside. I chanted, prayed, and then went a little crazy. I began to drink a lot, trying to blur the memory.
On the one-year anniversary of the fight, I celebrated a year of pain and frustration by walking the streets endlessly, roaming for hours with energy I didn’t understand and couldn’t control. One night I followed a man for almost an hour with my knife open. Someone had to pay besides me. A white man is a white man is a white man, I thought.
I was irrational, thoughtless, demanding, needy, and desperate. On a drunken dawn drive, I picked up a male hitchhiker whom I decided to kill. As he chatted on and on, I planned each detail of his murder. I opened my knife in my pocket, and as I readied it I heard him say that he was a construction worker only temporarily. What he really wanted to do was be a daycare worker. My mouth fell open. Yes, he said, he wanted to teach children that men could be gentle as well as strong. I cursed him, folded my knife, and drove on.
When next harassed by teenaged boys, the stab of usual fear passed quickly as I remembered a story I had recently heard. A man in a bar repeatedly bothered a local woman who was a karate expert, and she continued to warn him to leave her alone. He, of course, didn’t, and she broke his nose. I decided I would pretend to be her. I laid claim to one strong woman’s strength, and hoped in time to find my own.
I told the boys I didn’t think they knew what they were doing, that it would be best if they left me alone, that messing with me was not what they really should be doing. It would be in their best interests, I told them, to move along. And they left.
I laughed at them all the way home, and somewhere inside knew that not all of the strength used had been the other woman’s. It was a beginning.
Judith Schenck is a retired salesperson who has lived in Northampton since 1977. Her passions are painting and drawing, writing, the Red Sox, the Patriots, and her dogs Tessie and Kona. She lives in Florence with her wife and significant other of 42 years. She has written extensively about growing up in the Deep South in the 1950’s and 1960’s as well as her time at a woman’s collective in her blog Looking Back.”
__ Many thanks to Judith. It has taken many years for me to actually publish her generously shared story. Photos have been provided by her as well.
__Common Lives, Lesbian Lives. Iowa City, Iowa. Issue #2. 1981.
__Context of Northampton, bars and the lesbian community in the 70s can be found in this blog post : https://fromwickedtowedded.com/2017/10/02/bars-and-the-violent-backlash/
(another) Gala Cafe watercolor by Laura Kaye, from a photo by Belinda Starr.
used by permission